Geriatric Psychologist Career Guide

The Basics

Growing old is a part of life, yet for many people, old age can be a time of significant emotional, social, and physical difficulties. Bones and muscles become frail, memory and vision become less sharp, friends and loved ones pass away, and grief, anxiety, and depression can be common.

There are also many positive aspects of aging. Seeing children and grandchildren grow up and be successful is a primary benefit of getting older. Retirement after a lifetime of working, having time to spend with one’s loved ones, and enjoying leisure time are benefits as well. Geriatric psychology seeks to help maximize these positive aspects of getting older while also providing the interventions needed to address the not-so-desirable aspects of aging.

What is a Geriatric Psychologist?

A geriatric psychologist is a professional clinical psychologist that specializes in studying and treating the mental, emotional, and social problems that arise as we age. Much like a child psychologist works exclusively with child clients, geriatric psychologists focus their attention on the needs of the elderly. Geriatric psychologists conduct research, provide therapeutic services to elderly clients and their families, teach classes and offer training to mental health workers, and conduct research into topics of importance related to the latter stages of the human lifespan.

What is the Role of a Geriatric Psychologist?

Like most other psychologists, geriatric psychologists wear many different hats. They focus on diagnosis and assessment of clients. In this capacity, geriatric psychologists administer assessments to determine the presence, if any, of a mood, behavioral, or cognitive disorder in an elderly client. Using this information, geriatric psychologists develop a treatment plan for their client that addresses the issues of concern.

An essential part of a treatment plan, and another critical role of geriatric psychologists, is counseling. Geriatric psychologists will work with individual clients, as well as families, couples, or small groups. Counseling might focus on resolution of problems that are causing clients distress, such as working through feelings of loss and grief after the death of a loved one or developing strategies to deal with the stress of moving to an assisted living facility.

Another critical role of geriatric psychologists is in the educational realm. Geriatric psychologists will provide trainings and classes to a variety of people. For example, they might conduct a class with elderly clients to teach them daily strategies to keep their minds sharp. Additionally, geriatric psychologists will work with family members of elderly clients to teach them how they can best support their loved one in their old age. Geriatric psychologists also seek to inform loved ones about the processes of aging and what to expect in terms of their loved one’s mental, emotional, cognitive, and physical health.

Other popular job duties for geriatric psychologists are in the advocacy and consulting realms. Geriatric psychologists might work with government or non-profit agencies to conduct research on issues related to aging. Armed with research, geriatric psychologist can then advocate for improved services for the aged, increased funding for geriatric-related research, or expansion of health care for older adults. In the consulting realm, geriatric psychologists might work with government entities to develop policies that govern medical and mental health care access for the elderly. Consultants might also work with independent hospitals, day centers, and other geriatric facilities to develop programs that enhance the functioning of clients.

Why Geriatric Psychology is Important?

Geriatric psychology provides important insights into the manner in which we age, and the emotional and psychological ramifications of the aging process. For example, geriatric psychologists are uniquely equipped to study how physical deteriorations negatively impact the mood of older clients. Likewise, geriatric psychologists can provide valuable information from research into common ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, and help develop new strategies for treating those disorders.

Geriatric psychology is also a valuable resource for studying issues such as loss and grief, as many geriatric people have experienced the loss of family, friends, and other loved ones. For example, a geriatric psychologist might study how an elderly person deals with grief in order to better inform the processes by which therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals approach the treatment of grief and related emotional issues in older clients.

There are benefits of geriatric psychology to non-geriatric people as well. Learning about the life cycle and the social, emotional, and physical issues that await them in old age can help young and middle age people be prepared for the process of aging. Likewise, individuals that have elderly loved ones can glean much valuable information from geriatric psychologists regarding the best approaches to caring for their loved one in their old age. In short, geriatric psychology gives us the ability to live out our final years, and help our loved ones live out their final years, with the greatest possible levels of comfort and dignity.

What Degree is Required to Become a Geriatric Psychologist?

A career in geriatric psychology requires an extensive education that begins with obtaining an undergraduate degree. While a degree in psychology is most advisable, closely related degrees, such as gerontology or social work, are good places to start as well. These programs usually involve four years of study and 120 semester credits, of which half are in the field of psychology.

After undergraduate studies are completed, the next step is to obtain a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs typically require at least two to three years of coursework, of which an internship is included. Coursework at the graduate level focuses on a number of advanced areas, including diagnosis and psychopathology, therapeutic techniques, assessment, group work, and developmental psychology. Internship placements for individuals seeking a career in geriatric psychology would take place in settings such as assisted living centers or nursing homes.

Some careers in geriatric psychology and psychologist licensure require a Ph.D. or Psy.D. These programs can last four or five years, depending on the course requirements. Students at this level are deeply involved in advanced research and practice with geriatric populations. A significant portion of doctorate programs is spent on one’s dissertation, as well as doctoral and post-doctoral placements in geriatric care facilities.

Licensure requirements vary slightly from state to state, although there are several common components to obtaining licensure. Apart from a doctoral degree, most states require prospective geriatric psychologists to pass a national examination to officially become a “psychologist”. The majority of states also require psychologists to have extensive supervised clinical experience as well, usually in the 3,000-hour range of post-graduate work, before full licensure is granted. Continuing education requirements are also common to retain licensure.

What Do You Learn in a Geriatric Psychology Program?

  • Psychology Theory – As with any psychology program, psychology theory is the basis for all teaching and is taught from the beginning.
  • Assessment and Diagnosis – Learning the skills to be able to assess older patients who may have a range of communication issues and diagnose psychological conditions.
  • Healthy Ageing – Understanding the normal ageing process in an important part of such a course. This allows participants to be able to reassess clients, be prepared for their age related issues and identify decline that is not just related to healthy ageing.
  • Issues around Chronic Conditions – As well as a basic understanding of the medical issues associated with some of the most common chronic conditions experienced by older people, these programs teach students about the psychology of chronic conditions and the difficulties people face in coming to terms with them.
  • Mental Health Issues – As well as understanding the physiological conditions associated with ageing, psychologists in this field must be taught about the issues affecting the mental health of their clients. These issues can include grief, adjusting to retirement, and disorders of memory. They must learn how to assess a client’s mental health and support people making important life decisions affecting areas such as finances and medical issues while dealing with mental health concerns.
  • Legal and Ethical Issues – There are very specific issues around the law and ethics when dealing with older people, courses will generally teach students about these issues and how to maintain an ethically sound practice when dealing with older people.
  • The Team – Care of older people is delivered by a multidisciplinary team. To be effective, psychologists in this area must be taught the role of each individual within this team as well as how to work in this team environment successfully.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Geriatric Psychology?

There are a variety of career paths available to individuals that have a master’s degree in geriatric psychology. Many workers pursue employment in the medical sector, such as at a hospital or special care facility for geriatric patients, to work as therapists. There are also many opportunities for employment in assisted living centers, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, where again geriatric psychologists are often employed as therapists.

There is also an opportunity to work in the research sector. Working for public or private research facilities, individuals might focus their time on research into critical geriatric issues. For example, a researcher might seek to find the physiological markers for dementia or study the process of grief among elderly clients.

Many work in private practice as well. In this capacity, individuals can offer individual or group therapy, family therapy, or couples therapy. They might also offer psychoeducational classes, such as skills training for family members whose elderly loved one has a physical, psychological, or emotional difficulty. Many individuals that are in private practice also offer consultation services to hospitals, nursing homes, and other organizations that work with geriatric patients.

What is the Average Salary for a Geriatric Psychologist?

As of July 2015, according to Indeed, the average for a geriatric psychologist is $141,000. Salaries in general tend to be higher in large metropolitan areas and in areas of high standards of living as compared to rural or poorer areas.

What is the Difference Between a Geriatric Psychologist and a Geriatric Psychiatrist?

Although geriatric psychologists and geriatric psychiatrists both work exclusively with elderly clients and have specialized training working with that population, there are a wide variety of differences between the two professions.

The most significant difference is in the type of education and training that psychologists and psychiatrists receive. Whereas a psychologist must have a doctoral degree, psychiatrists are medical doctors. Geriatric psychologists might have specialized training as part of their internship or practicum placement in graduate school. Geriatric psychiatrists, however, will complete multiple rotations within the medical and mental health fields, with geriatric mental health care an area of specialization during the residency period.

As a result of these differences in education and training, there are also differences in the types of credentials that geriatric psychologists and geriatric psychiatrists hold. Psychologists are licensed by the state in which they practice, usually by a mental health board or board of psychology. Like psychologists, psychiatrists are licensed by the state in which they practice. However, their licensing procedures are much more robust. Psychiatrists must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination.

The manner in which geriatric psychologists and geriatric psychiatrists practice varies significantly as well. Many psychologists have a research focus and seek to explore issues related to aging, such as memory loss. As a result, a number of geriatric psychologists spend their time in laboratories conducting experiments. Many other geriatric psychologists work with clients in a clinical setting to deliver counseling services. On the other hand, psychiatrists are much more focused on a medical perspective of mental health. Rather than conducting research, they tend to specialize more in the diagnosis of mental health issues and treatment of those issues through a number of methods, including therapy and medication. Unlike geriatric psychologists, geriatric psychiatrists cab prescribe medication.

What Careers are Similar to Geriatric Psychology?

Geriatric psychology is just one of many specific disciplines within clinical psychology. There are many other closely related mental health careers as well, including:

Geriatric Psychiatry – As mentioned above, geriatric psychiatrists have specialized training in working with older clients, but do so from a more medical-based perspective than do geriatric psychologists. Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders is common, with many psychiatrists prescribing medication to help a geriatric patient effectively deal with a mental health issue.

Clinical Psychology – Geriatric psychology is a subfield of clinical psychology. As a result, there are many commonalities between these professions. Both clinical psychologists and geriatric psychologists deliver psychological services to clients in a therapeutic setting. Both undertake individual, family, and group counseling as well. The primary difference between the two is that clinical psychologists work with clients of all ages, whereas geriatric psychologists specialize in working with older adults.

Social Gerontology – Social gerontologists study the social aspects of aging. Rather than working with clients in a therapeutic setting, as psychologists do, social gerontologists focus exclusively on research.

Biogerontology – Like social gerontologists, biogerontologists focus their attention on studying the aging process, but from a biological perspective. Common areas of study include physical changes in late adulthood, psychological disorders, such as dementia, that typically afflict older people, and changes in cognitive abilities as we age.

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